By David B. Kopel
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 29, 1991, Metro Edition, p. 19A. More by Kopel on self-loading firearms.
Just one day after the recent massacre in Killeen, Texas, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected an "assault weapon" ban by a 70-vote margin. This seems outrageous to some, certainly odd to many. But when you consider the facts about Killeen, the House's "no" vote made good sense. Those same facts argue for a yes vote in Congress on a citizen self-defense measure soon to be introduced.
Murderer George Hennard used three weapons not subject to any control as "assault weapons": a pickup truck and two high-quality pistols. The madman drove through the front window of a cafeteria, then began spraying the crowd with gunfire. He was armed with a Glock 12 and a Ruger P-89. Both are excellent handguns, similar to the Colt .45 but less powerful; the Glock is carried by many police officers, the Ruger a favorite of target shooters. Neither is considered an "assault weapon."
The point is, Hennard didn't need a military-type firearm like the AK-47S or the Colt AR-15 H-Bar, the menacing sort of weapon Congress was asked to ban, in order to take 22 lives and then his own. His murder weapons, exactly like the semiautomatic rifles proposed for banning, were capable of firing one bullet with each pull of the trigger, no more, no less.
Indeed, Defense Department studies show that even an old-fashioned pump-action shotgun can fire just as fast as any semiautomatic rifle. This means that half the guns in any sporting goods store have a rate of fire equal to that of a semiautomatic AK-47S or the Killeen pistols. So banning "assault rifles" won't reduce criminals' firepower.
In Britain and France, citizen access to rifles of all types has been severely regulated for many decades. Are psychopaths in those countries deterred by the difficulty in acquiring any type of rifle, let alone an "assault rifle"? Unfortunately not. Mass murders over there tend to be committed with conventional hunting shotguns instead, and such shootings produce a victim fatality rate much higher than rifles or handguns. Wound ballistics expert Martin Fackler explains this irony - that a hunting gun can be more deadly in a killer's hands than a modern combat rifle - by noting that the latter are actually designed not to kill. They fire small bullets in order to wound the enemy, forcing his side to expend resources rescuing and caring for him. In contrast, as one surgery textbook observes, "Shotgun injuries at close range are as deadly as a cannon."
Regrettably, then, banning so-called "assault weapons" is not going to slow down the demented George Hennards of this world, as long as ordinary shotguns and pistols remain available.
However, some gun prohibitionists have suggested that Killeen also shows the need for a ban on larger-sized magazines, like the 17-round magazines that Hennard employed. Again the facts show that such a ban would have little effect. It's true that the cafeteria killer was able to keep firing until one magazine was empty, then easily switch to a fresh one. But changing a magazine takes about one second according to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Hennard ran through six of them in his rampage; no lives would have been saved if he had had to make a few more magazine switches.
George Hennard didn't stop killing people because changing magazines was too difficult, or because he was attacked by his conscience. He took cover in a restroom and then shot himself because police summoned from a nearby training session finally began shooting at him.
This brings us, at last, to the hard truth that gun prohibitionists are unwilling to face, but which Killeen's sheriff stated on national TV. If some of the restaurant patrons had been able to shoot back, Hennard could have been stopped much sooner.
Unfortunately, Texas, despite its Wild West image, has the most severe law in the country against carrying firearms. It is impossible in Texas for a licensed, trained citizen to obtain a permit to carry a firearm for self-defense. The Texas Legislature almost changed that law last spring, but the potentially life-saving reform was blocked by the gun prohibition lobby. Too bad for the people at Luby's Cafeteria.
Congress, having turned down a meaningless gun measure, should now enact a meaningful one - legislation creating a system to grant national carry permits to licensed citizens, after a background check. Florida implemented such a law in 1988, and despite the hysterical predictions of the anti-gun lobby, not a single licensed citizen has committed a gun crime. In fact, the Florida murder rate has fallen 6 percent since the law went into effect, while the national murder rate has risen 13 percent .
If a law allowing carefully-screened citizens to have the choice to defend themselves can save even one life, it's worth the effort. A law banning a few politically incorrect guns while exempting many equally deadly ones - and sending the public a false message of progress against crime - would have been an exercise in futility.
David Kopel is a gun policy expert with the Independence Institute in Denver.